Towards the end of Parashat Emor (24:5-9) the Torah presents the mitzva of lechem ha-panim – the bread that was baked and placed on the shulchan (“table”) in the Beit Ha-mikdash. The bread sat on the table for an entire week before it was removed and distributed among the kohanim serving in the Temple, whereupon the newly-baked bread was then placed on the table.
The Gemara at the end of Masekhet Chagiga (26b) tells that the lechem ha-panim would miraculously remain fresh throughout the week, and would not grow stale. When the kohanim ate the bread seven days after it was baked, it tasted as fresh as newly-baked bread (“siluko ke-siduro”). The Gemara further tells that on the three regalim – the festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, when Benei Yisrael came to the Beit Ha-mikdash – the kohanim would lift the table and show the bread to the pilgrims. They would announce, “See how much you are cherished by the Almighty,” noting that the bread was still fresh one week after it was baked. The Ritva (Yoma 21a) explains that the bread still produced steam, one week after it was baked, and thus the people visiting the Temple could see this miracle with their own eyes.
Why was specifically the miracle of the lechem ha-panim chosen as the “evidence” of God’s love for His people?
A number of writers have suggested that the lasting freshness of the lechem ha-panim symbolized the long-lasting impact of the visit to the Beit Ha-mikdash and of the experience of standing in God’s presence. When the people came for the regalim and were able to experience the special joy and exhilaration of the site of the Shekhina, they might become disheartened by the knowledge that they would soon return home to their regular routine. They could easily feel distressed over the fact that they received the inspiration of the Beit Ha-mikdash only three times a year, and spent the rest of the year engaged primarily in the pursuit of a livelihood through their engagement in mundane work. The kohanim in the Mikdash therefore sought to encourage the people by assuring them, “siluko ke-siduro” – we are all capable, to one degree or another, of maintaining the “freshness” and enthusiasm of an inspirational experience. The emotional effects of the visit to the Beit Ha-mikdash would likely not retain their intensity throughout the coming months, but they would not entirely disappear, either. By making a commitment to inject the kedusha represented by the Temple into their daily routine, the people had the opportunity to preserve at least some of the excitement and elevation they experienced during their festival celebration in the Mikdash, and thereby raise their lives to a higher level of religious devotion.